Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Follow up on my last post on Dlanga

This is just a quick post to follow up on my last post that dealt with Khaya Dlanga's post on abortion and frivolity.

Jacques Rousseau of synapses.co.za has written a solid, but critical, response that is well worth checking out.

I think Jacques has given a fair assessment of the failings of my reaction to Dlanga's post, while at the same time articulating an important dimension to the debate that was absent in my response (although was picked up, to a certain extent, by the comments on my piece).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A quick response to Khaya Dlanga's latest

I generally enjoy Khaya Dlanga's posts as they tend to be a breath of fresh, rational, and occasionally funny air on News24.

But in his latest column, in which he tackles the case of an Australian couple who aborted their twin foetuses because they happened to be male instead of the female that they were aiming for, he sorely disappoints.

He argues that their decision is "frivolous" - that their reasons don't carry the requisite "weight" (my words, not his) to be a reason to abort.
"To abort a child simply because they happened to be a wrong gender is beyond frivolous. If this is permitted, then where do we draw the line? If it were found, for example, that the baby would have green eyes as opposed to the blue that the parents wanted it to have, does that also mean this would be permitted?"
Perhaps their decision is frivolous? I'll have more to say about this below. However the first question we have to ask is why Mr Dlanga doesn't take the time to examine the question in the other direction? He's claims that edge cases like these lead us down a slippery slope to designer families. But what about the other slope? If we deny a woman the right to abort her pregnancy on the grounds that her reasons are frivolous "where do we draw the line" then? Who decides what counts as frivolous?

Well ... uh ... apparently ...
"This is the very reason I believe that States have the right to intervene."
Well, okay - but how can we guarantee that the state will make the kinds of choices that are in the best interest of the mother? How can we guarantee that the state wont use this kind of power to undermine the mother's right to determine what happens with and to her body? We can't, it's impossible. That is one of the the central problems. Furthermore, once we start careening down this other slippery slope, we open the floodgates to a boatload of problems that make so-called frivolous decisions to abort look tame by comparison.

Mr Dlanga goes on to say that
"What the parents have done raises a moral question; even amongst people who support abortion (even though I don't think anyone truly supports abortion because no one goes around bragging about their abortions)."
Supporting abortion - if by this he means being pro-choice - is not the same as heartily endorsing the act of abortion for fun and profit. Supporting abortion, as a pro-choicer, in no way commits one to the the notion that the act of aborting a foetus is a good thing, rather it commits one to the notion that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to see her pregnancy to term regardless of her reasons, frivolous or not.

We pro-choicers are pro-choice because we respect the rights of a woman to decide what happens with her own body as well as her right to determine her future prospects. We don't need to respect the woman who aborts her pregnancy because she (I'm hunting for a truly frivolous reason here) - say - would prefer to spend the time and money that she would have on raising a child to shop for shoes. We have to respect her right to make that choice, frivolous or not.

There is a very important parallel here between abortion and free speech - we don't need to respect what our critics say, what religious fundamentalists say, what "militant" atheists say - but we sure as hell have to respect their right to say it because we recognize that the alternative is far more dangerous.

Make sure you check out Tauriq Moosa's stellar reply to Dlanga.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Formal virtues

It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of thinking about modality in terms of possible worlds; here in South Africa there aren't too many opportunities for an undergraduate or honours philosophy student to do a lot of logic - that seems to be left to the computer scientists for the most part.

So I was very excited when I started reading Taylor and Dennett's treatment of possibility, necessity, and causation in chapter 3 of the Dennett's Freedom Evolves - essentially they present a way of thinking about these concepts in terms of possible worlds in order to show that our ordinary understanding of the words are pretty much neutral with regards to determinism or indeterminism - it's an enlightening discussion that, at least for me, clears up some of the conceptual terrain.

I don't actually want to talk about the content, but rather make a quick note about the presentation.

In his book, Dennett mentions that the chapter is that its content is basically a "gentler" version of the argument they put forward in Taylor and Dennett (2001).

What's so interesting is that parts of Freedom Evolves are lifted almost verbatim from the 2001 paper, with the major changes being that Dennett softens the presentation by pretty much removing all of the formalization by rewriting in ordinary English.

So what, in the 2001 paper, was rendered as

There exists (within some set X) a possible world in which the sentence "x (x is Socrates x has red hair)" obtains


is rendered in Freedom Evolves as

There is (at least one) possible world f in which the sentence "There is something that is Socrates and he has red hair" is true
The really cool thing is that by reading these two versions of what is essentially the same thing, one can really see how valuable formalization can be in philosophy.
Reading through the 2001 paper I was struck by just how much clearer it was than the rendering in Freedom Evolves. The formal renderings (without getting into argument's about just how conditionals are supposed to work) are just much more precise and leave a lot less room for misinterpretation.

I don't believe that philosophy should be a discipline where papers are exclusively written in arcane symbols, but in reading these two versions next to one another my conviction that Formal logic is an essential element in any thinking person's "mental toolbox" has been greatly strengthened. The Formal-logically-type-of items in this toolbox should at minimum include a basic understanding first-order logic, and - perhaps - just enough modal logic to get along.